Home Page

The Peter Pan Syndrome

William J. O'Malley, S.J.

Editor's Note:

"What's the matter with young people today?" is the cry echoing across the country from parents, educators, law enforcement and clergy. We inwardly shudder as we take note of the rising incidences of teen violence, suicide, drug use, and pregnancy. Worse still, and more pervasive, is the apathy and complacency that expresses itself in a lack of involvement in the community. This concerns us all, but few know fully what to do.

Father O'Malley, in his thought-provoking, four-part article, "The Peter Pan Syndrome," explores these issues. In the August issue, Part I examined how adolescence should be the time for preparing a child to take part in the adult world. In Part II, Father O'Malley focused on what is happening instead, what he describes as the Peter Pan Syndrome -- the "commitment to non-commitment." Last month, in Part III he probed the heart of the problem, our "mangled notion of what freedom really means." This month, in Part IV, Father O'Malley offers suggestions for the future.

Part IV.

What, Then, Do We Do?

If the problem is as widespread as I've painted it, at least a year of public service might be a good--if probably impractical idea. Our young have to "get on with their careers, making a living," even if at the end of their education they haven't the slightest idea what living is for. An equally unlikely solution in the realm of religious commitment might be to postpone confir- mation until an individual asks for it. But Church folk want to "make sure" the young are confirmed by the end of grade school, even though they are children incapable of knowing yet to what they are "committing" themselves, even though there has been no internal change whatever.

One realistic solution is that every youngster ought to have at least a part time job, and the parent ought to insist that half the salary can be for personal expenses but the other half goes into the bank, earmarked untouchably for college tuition. We'll pay two-thirds--or three-quarters, but you pay the rest. "The real world" started when you passed puberty, and it's about time you took your emergent adult place in it.

Another realistic solution might be the use by teachers and parents of contracts, in which the youngster binds himself or herself to a certain amount of work or study or rehearsal in return for a specified reward or grade or merely the satisfaction of remaining within the group. That, however, is as sheerly external as a marriage certificate, and yet it might be a preliminary means to focus a realization: if they hope to be treated as adults, they have to commit themselves to acting like adults: dependably, responsibly, accountably.

Along that same line, once emergent adults are capable of producing a child (though not yet capable of being competent parents), their own parents shouldn't continue to expect little notes or phone calls from teachers when Melissa or Jason is failing. In the worst cases, such calls provoke battles royal at home, solving nothing but invariably making things worse, both sides setting their jaws immovably and therefore uncommunicatively. Or they encourage the parents to plead the extenuating circumstances in the life of the emergent adult, thus usurping the youngster's chance to begin acting like an adult. Life is difficult; if we haven't taught youngsters that by the time they leave our high schools and our homes, we've failed miserably at our jobs.

My rock bottom solution to the problem of the commitment to uncommitment will have a slight ring of Torquemada to it: more failures! Judging from students I have taught in two different senior high schools and two colleges, at the very least there should be more failures in English, history, and any other subject in which students are (or ought to be) required to write. For three years, I have told students that on term papers I will take off a point for every five proof-reading mistakes; at least a quarter of them consistently have upwards of 50--even though I told them to get anyone at all to proof-read, and even though many were done on word processors which had spell-checks! When a teacher finds "hte" on a typed paper, he or she can be unassailably sure that even the author did not think the paper worth reading, even once. Then why should the longsuffering teacher "have" to read it? Simply draw a line across the paper and write, "I stopped reading here."

Like Hamlet and Holden, emergent adults are as sensitive to hypocrisy--conniving or unwitting--as sunbathers are to the thinnest clouds, perhaps because they themselves are experts at it. When we say that writing is essential for learning, that evidence, logic, and word-choice are the core of education--and yet dignify fifteen minutes of verbal swamp gas with a 70, they know we really don't mean it. Why should they commit themselves seriously to the learning process when--at least to their minds-- the teacher is only interested in getting the job out of the way, too, and the parents are interested in no more than the grades, no matter how they were achieved?

No adolescent is served by a kindly (or worn-down) teacher or administrator who says in the final week, "Oh, rats, let her graduate," when she doesn't deserve to, or by a parent who presses for the short-range goal of a grade or a part in the play or more time on the field or even a diploma at the expense of the long-range education as a mature adult.

We've "accustomed ourselves" to the Peter Pan Syndrome and the effects of its continued moratorium because, in an equally pervasive feeling of helplessness, we believe we can't do anything about it. But we can, starting with our expectations of our own children. "I do not want you to be the top student in your class, to get into Harvard, to be CEO of GM. But I do expect you to commit yourself to your job, learning, as completely as I commit myself to mine. I do expect the best grades you can get, as long as you get them honorably, but your continuing to learn is more important than the grades. When you sign up for a team, I don't expect you to give 110%, but I do expect you to stick it out to the end and then, win or lose, walk away from it proud."

Just as emergent adults are hypersensitive to hypocrisy, they are equally sensitive to a teacher who is straightforward, confident, and fair. If they are to hone their potential adult- hood into actuality, it must be against a hard place. When we didn't practice birth control, when we didn't quit teaching for jobs in munitions factories, we took on the task of being that hard place. The pervasive unwillingness of our young to commit themselves seems to indicate that we may quite likely have to do some rethinking about commitment ourselves.

Home Page